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Protection of Welsh Speakers from Defamation

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Will those who are not staying for the next debate please be kind enough to leave quickly and quietly? We now come to the important issue of the protection of Welsh speakers from defamation. I call Liz Saville Roberts to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered protection of Welsh speakers from defamation.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Hollobone. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. It will probably come as no surprise to anyone present that the subject of the debate was inspired by the recent contributions of a topical columnist to a national Sunday newspaper and current affairs magazine. The text is in the public domain, so I will refrain from using the little time available to repeat it. Suffice it to say that those comments are the latest manifestation of a long tradition of decrying, belittling and mocking the Welsh language and, by association, Welsh speakers.

The royal commission on Welsh education stated in 1847, in Y Llyfrau Gleision, or the Blue Books:

“The Welsh Language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of its people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects.”

Fast-forward to 2011, and the Daily Mail saw fit to allow a book reviewer to describe Welsh as an

“appalling and moribund monkey language”.

There has been much in between—you get the picture.

I want at the outset to establish a sense of proportionality. I do not seek to equate the bigotry against the Welsh language in the 21st century with the extremes of Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, but neither should the fact that majority prejudice is directed against a range of minorities devalue the need to address this issue.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She talked about how this issue sweeps back to 1847. Putting aside the specifics of what has happened in the modern era, does she agree that no one should be discriminated against by virtue of the language they speak, whether it is Welsh or any other language?

I agree entirely. We need to consider the effects on groups in how we deal with press regulation and in our regulation of hate crime and hate words.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that the refusal by the Independent Press Standards Organisation to apply clause 12 of the editors’ code of practice to groups such as speakers of the Welsh language shows how inadequate the regulatory system run by IPSO?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising something that I will raise anon. The two of us agree with the National Union of Journalists, which has raised that very point. Sadly, we live in a time when bigotry is increasingly acceptable. Hate words open the way to hate crimes.

The hon. Lady is being hugely generous in giving way. Does she agree that one way we could address this issue is by extending the use of the Welsh language in this place? It is currently restricted to the Welsh Grand Committee, but I wrote to the Leader of the House today to ask her to meet me to discuss permitting the use of Welsh in our debates in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. Does the hon. Lady think that that might be one way to raise the profile of the Welsh language and stop the bile of the bigots?

Of course. We recently used Welsh for the first time in the Welsh Grand Committee, but allowing its use in the Chamber and here in Westminster Hall would be a clear statement about the status of the language.

IPSO acknowledges that hate crimes and hate words are connected by exhorting the media to avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation, or to any physical or mental illness or disability, but complaints to IPSO are turned down on the ground that the editors’ code does not apply to groups of people. As I mentioned, the NUJ has long campaigned for the press regulator to accept complaints about how specific groups are represented in the media, rather than confining its remit to comments relating to specific individuals.

The drip feed of mockery undermines the extraordinary success story of one minority language at a time when 97% of the world speaks around 4% of the world’s languages—mostly English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili and Hindi—and only 3% speak the roughly 96% remaining languages. Wales’s Government have set a target of doubling the number of Welsh speakers to 1 million by 2050. The number of pupils in Welsh medium schools reached an all-time high last year of almost 106,000, and more than 1 million people learn Welsh on the language learning app Duolingo.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She must be proud of having secured this excellent debate. Does she agree that we should not belittle the advancements the Welsh Government have made with Welsh language learning? Although I am not a Welsh speaker, I am a proud person who represents Wales and I speak other languages. The advancements that Wales has made are a good example for other languages, particularly in Northern Ireland.

Indeed. Much about Welsh is a success story. None the less, the constant undermining—the drip feed—affects the way parents approach sending their children to Welsh medium schools and the way individuals approach using Welsh in services. I will return to that.

There is an idea that Welsh is somehow antiquated rather than new. We need to challenge that. Many of us are frustrated by references to Welsh as a quaint folk antiquity. A language is as venerable as its oldest literature and as vital as its youngest speaker. Yet language is not just a mechanical tool of communication. There is an expression—in Welsh, of course—“Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon,” which means, “A nation with no language is a nation missing its heart.”

For many people, Welsh is their first language. For many, the Welsh language is their mother tongue. It is the language of the home, the language of the community and the language of the workplace. Why would anyone seek to force those people to justify the language in which they think, dream, work and live? It is as natural and as normal to them as the English language is to its first-language speakers. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn the language as an adult, but my daughter’s first language is Welsh, as it is for my husband and for the majority of people in my constituency. For them, speaking Welsh is not an optional extra; it is who they are. The Welsh language just is.

Ask almost any Welsh speaker and they will talk about the accumulative effect of centuries of establishment scorn. They will talk about parents choosing not to pass their own first language on to their children, about Welsh speakers being reluctant to use the language beyond a narrow social group, about the social norm of turning to English, about children who lack the confidence to use Welsh outside school, and about adults who are reluctant to access services in Welsh, internalising the negative stereotype. Let us speak plainly. We know that that prejudice is an example of the majority asserting its power over minorities to devalue them. Tolerance and diversity walk hand in hand. This is on the spectrum of oppression.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and thank her for securing this debate. I have the advantage of not reading the Sunday papers, but I understand that the debate originated with Rod Liddle. I am not a defamation lawyer, but does the hon. Lady agree that, rather than changing the law in the long term, we need a respect agenda for the United Kingdom’s four nations and their languages so that we can all express ourselves comfortably in the language of our choice?

I agree entirely that we need a range of approaches. We do not want to be heavy-handed in our legislative approach, but when there is legislation that could be put into effect, as there is in other countries—I will come to that—it would be remiss of us not to consider all the options open to us.

Let me give an extremely brief synopsis of the status of Welsh in law, which is concerned mostly with the rights of Welsh speakers to use and access services in the language. The office of Welsh Language Commissioner was established by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which gave Welsh the status of an official language in Wales with legal effect. Most of the commissioner’s work concerns the creation and implementation of language standards, but she also has a remit to ensure that Welsh speakers are treated fairly. In the light of what we are discussing, the commissioner recently stated:

“While it is important that we respect freedom of expression…the increase in the offensive comments about Wales, the Welsh language and its speakers is a cause for concern.”

She called for action to stop such comments and said that

“legislation is needed to protect rights and to prevent language hate.”

I remind Members that Welsh and Scottish Gaelic enjoy European status as semi-official or co-official languages, meaning that they can be used in the European Council and the requesting member state. The UK ratified the European charter for regional and minority languages 17 years ago, and article 7 of the charter includes provision to,

“promote…mutual understanding between all the linguistic groups of the country and in particular the inclusion of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to regional or minority languages among the objectives of education and training provided within their countries and encouragement of the mass media to pursue the same objective.”

I also draw attention to the evident relationship between the characteristics afforded protection under the Equality Act 2010 and how a number of those are reflected in the way police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service record hate crimes on the grounds of hostility or prejudice towards a person’s disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

It is interesting that some forces have chosen to identify additional protected characteristics, with Greater Manchester police recording hate motivation against alternative subcultures such as goths. North Wales police treat the Welsh language and culture as legally protected characteristics. Such hate crimes and incidents are identified under race and further categorised as Welsh or English, with 42 such crimes and incidents recorded in the last two years in the force’s region. Indeed, it appears that legislation may already cover hate crime on the grounds of people speaking a different language, given that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 included national origins within the definition of a victim’s membership or presumed membership of a racial group when considering whether an offence was racially aggravated.

Looking further afield, it is interesting to note that a number of legislatures make specific reference to language as a factor in crime. Those include Canada, Belgium, Croatia, Kosovo, South Africa and Australia. Australia’s federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes it

“unlawful for a person to do an act”,


“the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people;”


“the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

I draw attention to the reference here to both individual and group rights, which is significant to our debate.

As the Welsh Language Commissioner has stated, this matter requires a number of approaches, but I question why Welsh speakers, as individuals within a group, have no legal protection at present. Put simply, that is felt by speakers in the present post-Brexit climate to encourage comments against them that they as individuals feel to be defamatory.

I ask the Minister to commit to respond to the Welsh Language Commissioner’s call for a meeting with interested individuals and groups to explore how to move this agenda forward. I also ask him, in his response, to consider the implications of article 7 of the European charter for regional and minority languages, which we have of course ratified, and the UK’s commitment to encouraging the mass media to play its part in promoting respect, understanding and tolerance across linguistic groups.

Although I understand full well that defamation as a legal concept refers to the individual rather than the group, I beg the Minister to consider that linguistic groups are made up of individuals, as are groups protected from discrimination and hate crime by the Equality Act’s protected characteristics, which in turn are reflected in IPSO’s list of what qualifies as discriminatory.

I ask the Minister to approach his Government colleagues and discuss how to deal appropriately with the prejudiced caste of Welsh language speakers by acknowledging the existence of language hate and thus laying the foundations necessary to identify language as a recognised protected characteristic in equality legislation. That might be on the grounds of the Welsh language’s status as an official language, along the lines of a list of identified languages, or by an alternative method. It might be via greater clarification of the resources already available in criminal law. As this is potentially a protected characteristic, could he comment on the means by which IPSO might then be called on to review its present dismissal of Welsh speakers’ complaints, and on the wider question of IPSO’s handwashing of responsibility for the effects of media incitement of hatred against protected characteristic groups?

Finally, I ask the Minister to join me in welcoming North Wales police’s inclusion of the use of both Welsh and English as protected characteristics in relation to hate crime, and request that we work together to facilitate the complete devolution of policing and the enabling of Wales’s four police forces to establish a hate crime unit best able to address our country’s needs. Would he also note that once again this might well be an example of how a separate legal jurisdiction would better serve the needs of Wales than the England-and-Wales anachronism? Diolch yn fawr.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Cadeirydd. I first congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important matter of the protection of Welsh speakers.

The hon. Lady’s speech, and the interventions, were certainly interesting. I have noted the strong views expressed on all sides and I am grateful to hon. Members for their contribution. I will try to respond to as many of the points as possible in the short time I have, but I will say at the outset that I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady so that we can perhaps discuss this in more detail. I think we need more than half an hour to discuss this important matter. I also think it would be useful to ensure that we include an invitation to the Welsh Cabinet Secretary, given the important role they play in the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government, to come to that meeting. I hope she will be happy with that offer.

The right of the people to speak in Welsh is simple, but powerful. Our language is part of what defines Wales as a nation, but it should not set us apart. I am very proud to be a Welsh speaker. I grew up in an English-speaking household, but my parents sent me to a bilingual primary school because they wanted me to have the best options available to me. When I moved away, as I have mentioned before, I stopped speaking Welsh daily. Now, returning to more frequent use of the language, I have noticed that it is not easy to get back into the swing of things and confidence can sometimes be something we struggle with.

As a Minister, though, I not only want to use Welsh more frequently, but believe I have a responsibility to do so. We all work in privileged positions and we have an opportunity to show Welsh speakers that our language is a normal part of the business of running the country. That is why, although I felt quite a bit of nervousness about it, I was keen to get on with doing media interviews in Welsh and trying as much as I can to conduct some of my meetings in Welsh, and indeed a phone call with the hon. Lady just yesterday. I do that because I believe it sets a good example, because people have a right to expect to be able to interact with their Government in the language of their choice.

Does the Minister acknowledge the inappropriate comments made by the hon. Member for Monmouth, when he condoned Rod Liddle’s comments as,

“kind of pub banter shock-jock stuff”?

I will come on to Rod Liddle’s comments later, but I will not make a comment about my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) at this stage. I am sure the hon. Lady will not mind.

I was also immensely proud to be able to speak Welsh in the first bilingual Welsh Grand Committee that was held in this House in February. Again, I confess I was apprehensive, and I was worried that people would pick up on my mistakes rather than focusing on the content of what I was trying to say. I know that many speakers have that worry, but we all have to get over it, frankly, and we all have to support each other. I think I mentioned during the St David’s day debate that I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd:

“Only through the use of the language will the language live.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 7 February 2018; c. 81.]

Governments at both ends of the M4 can set policies and targets, and commit to certain service levels, and those are undoubtedly important, but what is critical is to support Welsh speakers to feel able to speak the language. We have a responsibility to continue to protect and support its use not only when dealing with officialdom, but as everyday conversation. I say we all have a responsibility. Yes, the Government have a role, but those who are fluent in Welsh also have to help those who are learning to feel confident to be able to speak it. If they make a mistake, it does not really matter; it is about giving oxygen to the language.

I know that the Welsh people as a nation have a sense of humour. Much of the debate has centred on the individual who tried to deride our language, and even though we have a Welsh sense of humour, and even though the author of the article says it was a joke, I have news for him: he is not much of a comedian. His articles were, frankly, downright rude.

The Government are committed to a free and independent press, and as such only intervene in cases where publishers have broken the law. I am sure that we all agree that that is vital to a strong and fully functioning democracy, in which the powerful can be held to account without fear. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and others have mentioned IPSO, which regulates 95% of national newspapers, by circulation. The rights of individuals are protected under IPSO’s editor’s code, but not the rights of groups. I am sure that the hon. Lady and I will discuss that in the meeting we will arrange.

The crucial point is the Government’s position, so far as IPSO is concerned. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently asserted that he supports IPSO in its regulatory role. However, IPSO refuses to look at cases such as the one we are discussing. Does the Minister support the Secretary of State, or does he support people who want an appropriate regulator?

The Government are committed to a free and independent press. That is an important part of what we do. We intervene only when the law has been broken. I have been asked if I will raise these issues with my colleagues, and I commit to do just that. Once I have had those meetings, I will be happy to reply to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and, if he wants, to the hon. Gentleman too.

The issue of equalities has come up. The hon. Lady mentioned the various groups and individuals that are protected because of their age, disability, sex, sexual orientation and so on. However, there is already appropriate legislation to capture potential cases of defamation—the Defamation Act 2013. Unlike colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins, language is not, as she knows, an explicit aspect of race for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

Nevertheless, where an organisation, such as an employer or service provider, imposes language requirements that may in some way be linked to person’s nationality or national origins, it would be a matter for the courts to determine whether that might constitute unlawful indirect discrimination under the race provisions of the Equality Act.

Along those lines, it is important that I mention Gwynedd County Council v. Jones in 1986. It was declared legal for Gwynedd County Council to have a language requirement across a number of its jobs because there was not, in terms of employment, a connection between race and language, because language is an acquirable skill.

Again, this is why we need careful consideration of many of the issues that have been raised. Looking at the Equality Act, for example, it is not clear what the effect of adding language to the list of protected characteristics might be. For example, if it was unlawful to discriminate on the basis of language, would it be possible to advertise a job that required a person to speak Welsh, or would that be discriminatory against speakers of other languages? I hope the hon. Lady understands why I want to make sure that we discuss this in great detail and that we do not actually create unintended consequences.

I agree entirely with the need to not rush legislation and to avoid unintended consequences. I draw a line between employment law, and the skills necessary for jobs, and defamation.

I take note of what the hon. Lady says. I will move on, because I notice that time is running out, as often happens in these debates.

I know that the author of that article wanted to be provocative. It is what he is about. It is how he tries to gain publicity, in the hope that more people will read his articles. He will probably give some publicity to this response. However, I do not personally intend to give him any more airtime.

The Minister and I are both from a bilingual community. Although he does not want to give any more oxygen to that author, is he as concerned as many Opposition Members, including the mover of the debate, about IPSO? Will he take this matter up with the editor of the newspaper that the article was published in, to show the concern there has been in Wales? I am sure that the Wales Office is also upset by the article. Will he make the editor of that newspaper aware of what has been said in the debate?

I will happily write to the editor.

As I say, I do not want to give any more oxygen to that article—although I commit to writing that letter. Instead, I will focus on our language and the important contribution it makes to our culture. At about 4,000 years old, Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Europe. We should be proud of how we teach people to speak Welsh; of how we are keeping the language alive; of our institutions, such as S4C, which, through the reforms we are implementing following the independent review, will broaden the appeal of the language to a digital audience; and of events such as the National Eisteddfod, which has roots back to the 12th century and attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year. Our attention must be focused on the important matter of ensuring a strong language for the future; on giving people across Wales the opportunity and confidence to use Welsh in social and official capacities; on ensuring that more and more Government services are available in Welsh; and on taking every opportunity to promote the strengths and attractions of our nation.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. She made an important contribution, as have other hon. Members. I know that there is a great strength of feeling on this in Wales, but I also know that Wales is a very confident nation. It is staggering to compare the number of Welsh speakers in my community of Llanfaes and around Beaumaris when I was growing up on Anglesey with how many there are now. I was there just a week or two ago and it was pleasantly surprising to hear more and more people speaking in Welsh in shops, in restaurants and, of course, in the pub. I hope we will see more of that.

I have agreed to the hon. Lady’s meeting request, and I will of course approach other colleagues. However, the Government have a firm view on police devolution. The practice of English and Welsh police forces working together is a strong one that we will stick to. On the other issues, I look forward to our meeting in due course, so that we can debate these issues even further and hopefully get the resolution and the confidence that we all want to see.

Question put and agreed to.